It may come across as self-indulgent and somewhat presumptuous that I named the original version of Africa is a Country “The Leo Africanus.” But it was also a fortuitous choice for a blog name that helped me initially draw links between the Early Modern “Moorish diplomat,” who similarly reported on the wonders of Africa to his European audiences, and what I wanted to do by maintaining a public diary of my own experiences as an out-of-place African.
If you may recall, Leo Africanus refers to the 16th century writer and traveler about whom “few facts are known,” except “that he was born al-Hasan al-Wazzan, in Granada,” which was known as “the New York of that time” in Islamic Spain (as part of al Maghreb). He moved with his family to Fez, in Morocco, after the Spanish defeated the Islamic rulers there. In Fez, al-Wazzan studied at the famed University of Al Karaouine. As a teenager, he accompanied his uncle who traveled as an envoy of the Sultan of Fez. Al-Wazzan was later employed as a diplomat himself and claimed to have journeyed to Timbuktu and Gao in what was then part of the Songhai Empire, and what is now Mali, Sudan (“the land of the Blacks”), Egypt and Constantinople. Then, in 1518, as he was traveling back to Tunis, he was kidnapped in the Mediterranean by corsairs (“official” pirates) who brought him to Rome. The normal fate of Muslim prisoners was slavery, but al-Wazzan was taken to the papal court where he became a confidant of Pope Leo X. The Pope personally converted and baptized him; from thenceforth, al-Hasan al-Wazzan became known as Leo Africanus. He would live in Rome for the next nine years and serve as an adviser to his Catholic hosts, providing political and military intelligence on the Maghreb.
While all these details about an African man’s encounter with Europe might be fun to reminisce about, what links Africa is a Country’s contributors’ part-time (we all have other jobs) objective—disseminating information, truth-telling, providing a platform for multiplicitous viewpoints of our experience of Africa and its diasporic people, and sometimes calling out those who are in error–is that we modestly attempt to do online at Africa is a Country what Leo Africanus attempted to do in “The Description of Africa,” a book he published while in Italy,
That manuscript was completed in 1526. Its significance lies in the fact that for a long time afterwards, it “shaped European ideas about Africa.” Clifford Geertz, in a review of historian Natalie Zemon Davis’s biography of Africanus, concluded that it was “a remarkable book [that] for centuries [was] a shaping force in the European imagination of Africa.”
What was in it? Africanus’s writing is variously described “a collection of learning, hearsay, and personal anecdote,” and it is often said to reflect the world of someone “straddling two warring cultures.” And invariably, Africanus is similarly described as “a man between two worlds,” and “with a double vision.” For other Western critics, the book was characterized by a “tolerant and non-sectarian tone.” Zemon Davis, the Princeton historian, has written that Africanus offers “the possibility of communication in curiosity in a world divided by violence.” Africanus became, like his book, known for his tolerant views on race, sexuality, Islam (even after he converted) and for getting along with Jewish colleagues.
Why should we refer back to this Early Modern traveler, who, to our modern minds, may come across like a fabricator with too much obsequiousness towards his European masters? Leo Africanus is important for a reason that remains relevant across the centuries: he translated the strange and wonderous things with which he was familiar into knowable language for those who might initially balk at difference.
However, I am not so stupid as to compare myself directly to Leo Africanus. I was born in Cape Town, South Africa, under Apartheid. I went to segregated, working class schools in that city. My parents were domestic workers. I first came to the US in the mid-1990s as a graduate student in Chicago. I returned to South Africa working for a NGO and then lived briefly in London before making Brooklyn my home. I edited some books on postapartheid politics and media culture. But that’s all. Nothing spectacular.
I arrived to live in New York City a few days before 9/11. It was in this post-9/11 climate, when I, and many others like me, were bombarded by negative, a-historical and decontextualized images of Africa. Whether that ahistoricity was connected to the general anti-Muslim atmosphere or not is unclear, but it seemed to be part of a wave of American exceptionalism that threatened to fashion anything un-European into something backward. What were the popular go-to pages about Africa on the blogosphere at the time? They were what can best be described as “development” blogs, concerned with US foreign policy and USAID’s programs and budgets.
Around 2004, I haltingly volunteered to edit an online edition of Chimurenga Magazine, the Cape Town-based literary magazine. However, that effort did not get far and proved frustrating for various reasons, chief among which was my location in New York City. (To their credit, the collective at Chimurenga has since built the magazine’s blog and its online off-shoots, notably Power, Money, Sex, into essential reads.)
Meanwhile in 2005 I started my own blog, choosing Leo Africanus as my avatar, and as the blog’s title. Leo Africanus was hosted on Google Blogger; my posts were infrequent, and I was merely experimenting with the platform. (Sadly, I deleted it. Anyone know how to retrieve the pages?) But already, I had developed a template for it. And it also developed a small, dedicated readership, though I hardly actively promoted the blog. (Among these was someone who used the identity Ibn Battuta; he later turned out to be a successful novelist. But that’s a story for another day.) And I made connections to other early adaptors of blogging—including those on the continent like Jeremy Weate, who ran Naijablog from Abuja, and a few others. The South African blogosphere, to which I paid close attention, was mainly focused on rugby, technology, the country’s version of “the Park Slope mom” blog, and white, rightwing or “liberal” politics.
Also around that time, in the summer of 2007, Tony Karon, who works for Time Magazine and blogged as “The Rootless Cosmopolitan” (his blog title referenced a slur Stalin used for Jews) asked me to write a commentary for his blog on Vanity Fair’s special Africa issue. Reading it now, it sums up a lot of what Africa is a Country’s current postings and preoccupations still are about. Here’s a sample:
Africa, of course, is now everyone’s pet cause. It offers an opportunity to shine for northern political leaders unpopular at home, and for Hollywood actresses and former and current pop stars to be seen doing their bit for humanity by lining up to visit the continent (mainly its children) or pleading its case in Western capitals.
Gradually I started to take blogging more seriously, studied up on developing a style and tone (a mix of snarkiness and irreverence) and purchased a URL, http://theleoafricanus.com, and a month later moved to WordPress. I started blogging more regularly—at least one substantive commentary daily that consisted of 500 words or thereabouts. The commentaries also became more timely, and related to topical events.
In January 2008, I changed the name to Africa is a Country. The name change was deliberate. I had been lampooning journalists, celebrities, public officials and politicians, who had made the elementary mistake of referring to or implying that the continent was one big, monolithic nation (both literally and figuratively). From then on, the blog would combine my commitment to knowledge production, with a nod to the popular, the frivolous, and the crazy. Posts became a mix of links, indented quotes, music, rapid-fire criticism and also some thorough critical investigation.
One year later, the blog ceased being just about my “description of Africa” as I invited others to join me. The first was a former New School student Sonja Uwimana, who had written an MA thesis on celebrity humanitarianism. Possessed of a sharp wit, Sonja proved to be invaluable in that first year of joint blogging, posting as often as people said ridiculous things about Africa and Africans. Later, other graduate students, professors, activists, development workers, journalism students, art critics, novelists, photographers, filmmakers, a DJ, and a curator, among others, came on board. Their names are listed on the sidebar of the landing page. We also have a group of occasional contributors who post when they feel so moved.
That brought its own challenges, but also possibilities. The blog is now more a collective, though it still carries my individual stamp to some degree. Writing posts together online has become standard. We of course give credit to individual writers, but we definitely write some things together. Some have better editing skills (like Neelika Jayawardane, an English professor, and Tom Devriendt, an anthropologist), while others know more about a certain angle connected to the subject of a post or have insight into how the reader will encounter the information—whether we are being snarky for no reason except to show off our wit, or the snark is there for a ‘reason’.
Neelika reminded me recently that her involvement in AIAC removed, for her at least, the isolation of academia, as well as the geographical and intellectual isolation of being a traveler and on-demand educator —formally in the classroom, and informally when someone inevitably spouts some Heart of Darkness nonsense at a gallery opening, a department committee meeting, or at a potluck dinner. Blogging about it the next day—reflecting on the historical weight of ‘Africa’ and the undeniably attractive mythology attached to it, while calling out the idiocy that relies on that mythology as a primary informative source—is infinitely more rewarding than stewing in one’s own juices or venting about it to one friend.
The arrival of Twitter changed the nature of blogging somewhat. Short posts that didn’t require much analysis or reflection would, instead, become tweets; blogging now became mostly for longer, considered pieces. It helped immensely that the blog was no longer a one-person outfit. And along with the changes that we were experiencing at Africa is a Country, blogging as a whole was also changing around this time. We witnessed the emergence of a range of other voices—that of music entrepreneurs, of the African diaspora, of young immigrants engaged in boosterism and identity politics, for example.
Simultaneously, we’ve been wondering what it means to de-center the blog from the US to include not just London and Paris for example, but also African locales; and how to define ourselves as something apart from traditional journalism (some of us have journalism training or have worked as journalists), as well as the slew of new blogs. Finally we’ve arrived at some kind of identity. As Neelika writes on our Facebook page:
The ironic title of the blog, Africa is a Country, acknowledges the re-hashed images of ‘Africa’, undermines those notions, and re-inscribes the image and narrative bank that ‘Africa’ evokes. Beyond the project of ‘re-imaging’ Africa, the blog is a project of re-imagining a nation-ness that exists outside the borders of the classic nation state and continental boundaries. While counter productions like ours are hardly ever ‘networked’ within existing power structures, we use the image field of the blogosphere to construct a new vision of self vis-à-vis networks outside the mainstream. Africa is indeed a ‘country’: the ‘citizens’ of Africa is a Country critique the story and images, contributing to the intellectual dynamics of image consumption and narrative engagement. We aren’t about famine, Bono, or Barack Obama. For that, go to Newsweek.
As with Leo Africanus’s “Description of Africa”—heavy on North Africa and Morocco—there are questions about geographical spread. The blog grew out of my obsessions with reporting and critiquing what passes for analysis about Southern Africa in Anglo-American media in particular. While the blog has adopted a larger continental remit—with the arrival of other contributors enhancing our coverage—it has retained some of its particularly Southern African focus to its detriment, undermining its claims to a greater focus on all corners of Africa and its diaspora. But we’re slowly rectifying this.
Some of us use the blog as a testing ground for ideas we want to publish elsewhere, and at times, we’ve had some success. For example, In May 2008, a post I had written about the deep roots of xenophobia in South Africa—initially published on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site—made it into the newspaper’s print edition. Other pieces that first appeared on Africa is a Country have appeared in Caravan (India), Chimurenga, and Transition Magazine.
We’re also facing new issues—like having to deal with the considerations of a “publication.” Now, we have to think about editorial decisions, an “editorial line,” so as not to contradict previous posts (though we’re very open to that happening) and with vetting contributors.
We continuously find that our words, word for word, have been copied and pasted on other blogs, or turn up in articles of “legitimate” journalists. Because we’re unpaid, attribution and recognition is the only reward. All we ask is a hyperlink, but we don’t always get one.
Topical events also challenge us. #Kony2012, for example, exposed tensions: whether we were letting it define our blog agenda and whether we would be seduced by the attention (one of the posts on #Kony2012 received nearly 30,000 page views on its own in one afternoon). So let me use the madness around #Kony2012 to to reflect on one of the key questions about our blog (something that also dogged Leo Africanus): questions about authenticity and representation.
At some level, we at Africa is a Country were of two minds about getting caught up in the hyped-up “discourse” about #Kony2012 earlier this year. We were, in fact, going to let that circus pass. I had actually blogged last November about the hunt for Joseph Kony; that post included a link to an Iranian (!) TV program where 3 Ugandan experts discussed Barack Obama’s announcement to send advisers to Uganda to deal with Kony’s small, ragtag army. The Ugandans speculated on the reasons for announcement and essentially concluded that Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army had moved on from Uganda and had not been a threat since 2003 and that the real issue for Ugandans was the 26-year reign of Life President Yoweri Museveni.
Of all the posts we did, probably the one representing us the best was one by Elliot Ross, a comparative literature PhD student at Columbia University, that went up three days after the video went online. Offline, in social media and through emails we were contacted by various people and media who were now obsessed with finding out what “African voices” say: meaning, what do ‘authentic’ Africans think about the film—as if the authenticity of the African will make the criticism ‘real’, add ballast to #Kony2012’s fading truthfulness.
Obviously, we agree that the lack of voices of Africans from the regions in which the Lord’s Resistance Army operates (or once operated) is part of the problem in this ‘activist’ film, with its easy ‘to do’ list aimed at the Facebook slacktivist. (After all that’s something that’s part of Africa is a Country’s remit.) But we were not sure how being ‘authentically African’ makes someone a purveyor of opinion on the issue. And we don’t just say that as a blog composed of like-minded people who came together because our politics and our passion for writing intelligently about Africa are aligned in similar ways, rather than because we have our skin colors aligned within the ‘correct’ spectrum, or because we believe our origins give us some sort of authenticity juju.
Africans can also go wrong badly when they draw uninformed (or purely self-interest driven) conclusions about what’s going on in their own backyard. So we were unclear if the ‘authenticity’ of the Africans engaged in (or critiquing) any given ‘African’ situation is the solution per se.
The Western media seemed to be thunderstruck by a sudden “awareness” of critiquing “African voices”: if you report on something happening in Uganda (or name your country) without bothering to talk to any people from said-country (a noble tradition in Western media coverage of the continent since forever), you’re likely to come up with something that looks as utterly crackers as #Kony2012. Since then, they’ve been anxiously casting around for as many Africans as they can find to provide some kind of unchallengeable African Truth. You’re from Sierra Leone? You know something about child soldiers? Oh well, close enough, you’ll do, now tell us what to believe, and please do try to be polite and not say anything horrible about racism, especially if it might be ours.
It was obvious to us that #Kony2012 was/is above all about Americans, not Uganda. It had little to say about Ugandan history or politics and as a media phenomenon, it provided more insight into American mass culture. Elliot’s post analyzed and captured that sentiment. He didn’t have to be “authentic” or have a special pass in order to do better than most of the New York Times staff on Africa’s case.
Sure, Africa is a Country knows how to write snarky responses to all sorts of inane media reports on Africa, but we also recognize that the mentality required for that kind of critique has little to do with Africa or Africans—something I think Leo Africanus knew very well.
* This is an edited version of a talk I gave at the Indiana University workshop on African Cultural Production and the Challenges of Digital Technology. The website has links to presentations by the other panelists: Stacy Hardy, Patrice Nganang and Miriam Conteh-Morgan.